When electrical power failed suddenly across a wide swath of Southern California in September, businesses closed, traffic became snarled and life as we knew it went dark. But survival expert Susan Conniry found the crisis illuminating.
"You saw people having bonfires with their neighbor, not panicking," she says. "It was so cool."
Conniry and her husband, Tom Beasley, of Lakeside, are the authors of Ready or Not-A Disaster Survival Handbook. They've made a habit of preparing for the worst since 1997, when then-San Diego Mayor Susan Golding heralded the coming El Niño weather pattern in terms reserved for biblical catastrophes.
"We were warned of terrible flooding and deaths," says Conniry, "but not told how to prepare."
Luckily, the couple has pre-instilled survival skills. Conniry's parents are British and taught her that war was always a threat, while Beasley was a victim of circumstance one day when his backpack rolled down a cliff during a hiking trip.
"At that point, he learned to live without one," Conniry says.
In addition to their 2006 book, Conniry and Beasley administer a website (readyornotsurvival.com) and conduct workshops in disaster preparedness-including self-sufficiency in the face of growing economic chaos.
Conniry's worst-case advice? "Set aside enough food and water to last seventy-two hours, because that's how long it takes disaster crews to mobilize."
Yet food isn't the priority, she adds-rattling off, in order of importance, shelter, water and fire. "Food is number four. You won't die if you go seventy-two hours without it."
Surviving a disaster and thriving amid an ongoing crisis are two different things, so Conniry suggests lining your emergency kit with a few less-obvious little items that may enhance your post-apocalyptic comfort.
"Like spicy food? Pack some hot sauce or dried spices," she says. "You know what you need."
More crucial survival items include prescription meds and back-up eyeglasses. But readiness isn't just about stashing supplies-it's also about devising and practicing a strategy.
"Do fire drills," Conniry says. "Before the 2003 Cedar Fire, we were able to get everything we needed, including the laptop and the dog, into the car in seven minutes."
Then, a not-so-funny thing happened when the actual wildfire struck.
"I just grabbed my husband and the dog," Conniry says. "I didn't have time for everything else."
Conniry and Beasley have become more sanguine in reacting to news of impending doom since 1999, when Y2K panic gripped the nation.
"We assumed we might go into the wilderness if all the computers went kaput," she says. "Now, I think we'd face it at home with a glass of wine."
Other, non-alcoholic survival gear musts, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):
? radio (battery-powered or hand crank)
? first aid kit
? dust masks
? plastic sheeting and duct tape
? moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties
? wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
? can opener
? cell phone with charger (inverter or solar)
? extra batteries
More survival kit tips: ready.gov